In a world where anyone can be a critic, and everyone wants to be an expert, there's Subway Scriptures.
Q: Is the SEC the best conference in college football?
It’s a simple question that has been debated intensely over the last few years. This is especially true considering the SEC’s recent performance in the BCS National Championship game, which an SEC team has won each of the last 7 years. And while it’s true that an SEC team has been national champion in each of these years, this is not enough to say the conference is in fact better than all the others.
Since the term “best” can be defined a number of ways, I want to be explicit about what we’re trying to define here. So to rephrase the question:
Q: Since the beginning of the BCS era in 1998, has the SEC, from top to bottom, been a consistently stronger conference than the other powerhouse conferences?
Before we go into specific data to answer this question, I want to debunk a few of the common arguments that are somewhat irrelevant to this particular question:
The SEC has won more BCS championships (9) than all other conferences combined (6)
While true, this argument only identifies the fact that the SEC has strong teams at the top of their conference and ignores the rest of the conference. Using this statistic alone, we have no indication of the strength of the weaker teams in the conference.
The Heisman winner has come out of the SEC 4 out of the last 6 years (or some statistic of this nature)
Again true but in many ways this is more irrelevant than the statistic above. Having the best player is no indication of the best team, and certainly gives no insight into which is the strongest conference in the country. Alex Rodriguez’s MVP campaign in 2003 with the Texas Rangers is the best example of this. Despite coming out of the AL West, no one would make the argument that this division were the best in baseball or the Rangers were the best team in the league.
The SEC has the best record in head to head match-ups with other conferences
Of the three arguments mentioned so far, this is the most useful but has too many flaws to be used reliably. Of the conferences with more than five appearances in a BCS bowl game, here are their records and number of appearances
So how are we going to address this question? To get a holistic view of the conference, you need to rate performance of at least the middling teams of each conference. The performance of the true cellar dwellars of each conference varies so much from week to week I consider these teams irrelevant. I believe the best tool to analyze the top and middle teams of each conference are year-end rankings.
The AP Poll
With 25 teams making the list, this gives a reasonable view of which conferences have the most ranked teams each year and which ones are specifically top heavy. Because the data was most easily accessible
The Point Scale
There needs to be some differentiation between the #1 team and the #2 and the #3 and so on. But a simple reverse point scale (#1 gets 25pts, #2 gets 24, #25 gets 1, etc) does not offer enough differentiated reward for the top teams. For example, this scale would imply a conference with the #12 and #13 team (13pts + 12pts) is a equally as strong as the conference with the #1 team (25pts). I’m not ready to make that statement. Instead, I elected to use the scale below:
You’ll notice point values are assigned by tiers rather than specific rank. There is too much noise in the game to confidently say the #24 team is consistently better than the #25 team, but I am confident in saying the BCS teams are worth significantly more than the teams that just missed the cut. Thus, the tied model.
Compiling the final AP pool from 1998 to 2012 and then replacing the team names with their respective conference, this is how the list would look:
A bit of a jumbled mess, ya? But what happens when add color (and a legend for clarity).
Color coding definitely helps and you can tell for yourself if any particular conference stands out. The SEC has clearly held the top of the standings in recent years and in the inaugural year of the BCS, but there doesn’t appear to a particular color (conference) that dominates the chart.
Now when we assign point values, how does the picture change?
The SEC is the best performer since 1998, amassing 52 more points than the next closest conference, the Big 10, which equates to about one additional BCS bowl berth per year. That is a pretty significant accomplishment to maintain over the last 15 years.
With the model presented here, I’m confident in saying the SEC has been the nation’s best conference in the BCS.era. What’s even more telling is that since 2004, only once has a conference amassed more points in a single year, which occurred in 2009 when the Big 10 edged out the SEC by 0.5 pts.
But while this model supports the public opinion of SEC superiority, it’s important to understand the figure is entirely dependant on the point scale, which will always require a significant element of judgement and opinion. Other point scales, ones which perhaps reward more points for BCS games or fewer for lower ranked teams, may paint a different picture. And for those who are curious, the standard reverse point scale mentioned earlier makes the SEC appear even more dominant.
So yes, the SEC is, in fact, the bee’s knees.